Art, Music & Science

Is this the Oldest Image of the Virgin Mary?

by Steve Ray on March 28, 2016

New York Times By Michael Peppard
JANUARY 30, 2016

THE Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the most revered woman in the Christian tradition. In the history of art, she appears almost as frequently as Jesus himself. But for the past 80 years, one of the oldest paintings of her may have been hiding in plain sight.

A detail of the baptistery painting from Deir ez-Zor, Syria, that may portray the Virgin Mary. TONY DE CAMILLO / YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY

At the Yale University Art Gallery hang wall paintings from one of the world’s oldest churches. Buried by the middle of the third century, this house-church from eastern Syria had images of Jesus, Peter and David. The gallery showcases a well-preserved procession of veiled women that once surrounded its baptistery, a room for Christian initiation.

Off to the side, seldom noticed among the likes of Jesus and Peter, stands a different wall fragment, faded but still discernible: a woman bent over a well. Holding the rope of her vessel, she looks out at the viewer or perhaps over her shoulder, seemingly startled in the act of drawing water.

Who is she? The museum’s identification is certainly plausible: “The painting most likely depicts a scene from the encounter between Christ (not shown) and a woman from Samaria,” as recorded in the Gospel of John. But historians also know that the Samaritan Woman, a repentant sinner who conversed at length with Jesus, was usually depicted in dialogue with him. This woman appears to be alone.

Is it possible that a painting from a building excavated in 1932 and publicized around the world has not been correctly identified? These murals come from the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, a military outpost variously called “Dura” or “Europos” in antiquity.

Perched high above the Euphrates in the region that is now called Deir ez-Zor, the ruins of Dura-Europos have yielded more distinct artifacts than almost any other ancient archaeological site: an intact Roman shield, a lavishly painted synagogue, a temple to the gods of nearby Palmyra. It is the “Pompeii of the Syrian desert,” declared Michael Rostovtzeff, director of Yale’s excavations at the site.

An annunciation scene from a Byzantine 12th-century illuminated manuscript. BIBLIOTHÈQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE

But no Vesuvius buried this Pompeii. Portions of Dura-Europos were buried intentionally, to bolster a rampart against a Sasanian army invading from the east in the 250s. The misfortune of the Roman garrison, which lost the battle, would become good fortune for historians. The earthen rampart sealed cross-sections of many buildings, including the house-church, so that both contents and date were secure. 

The church’s painted baptistery remains a unique discovery. Outside of funerary contexts, such as the catacombs in Rome, there are precious few Christian paintings from before Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century. These also offer a glimpse into the beliefs and rituals of Syrian Christians, a community currently in peril.

While the Samaritan Woman at the Well was a respected biblical figure for early Christians, there was actually a more prominent “woman at the well” in Syria: the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation, when an angelic visitor informed her of her miraculous pregnancy. Where does this episode take place? The setting of the canonical account, in the Gospel of Luke, is not specified. But the second-century biography of Mary’s early life, usually called the Protevangelium of James, describes how one day, during a break from her work, “she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail, you are highly favored, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.’ And she looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.” During this first encounter, at a well or spring, the angel was heard but not seen. Mary appeared to be alone.

Most people, when they imagine the Annunciation, have in mind some western Renaissance masterpiece: a studious, cloistered Mary welcoming the angel from the comfort of home. But Byzantine images of the scene, though coming centuries later than the figure from Dura-Europos, bear an arresting formal resemblance to it. The brilliant illumination in James of Kokkinobaphos’s “Homilies on the Virgin” and the grand mosaic from the Byzantine monastery at Chora in Istanbul both demonstrate the importance in eastern Christianity of placing Mary at the well. Some manuscripts even depict this type among illuminations of the Gospel of Luke itself, showing that artists preferred the evocative iconographic traditions of the noncanonical text over the unspecified setting of the canonical one. At Chora, Mary’s figure can also be contrasted with the portrayal of the Samaritan Woman in the same church, who looks across a well at a pictured Jesus.

The woman at Dura-Europos has yet more secrets to reveal. Archival photographs and drawings made by the archaeologists on site show that the supposed absence behind the female figure is not totally silent — it speaks a couple of lines. That is to say, a field sketch of the wall done “to show additional details” depicts two painted lines touching the woman’s back, along with a kind of starburst on the front of her torso, features described as “unexplained” in the archaeological report. But with the new interpretation of the figure, in connection with the Eastern iconography that came later, the lines invite a rather evident meaning. They appear to represent a motion toward the woman’s body and a spark of activity within it, as if something invisible were approaching and entering her — an incarnation.

If correct, this woman at a well is the oldest securely datable image of the Virgin Mary. Devotees of the Roman catacombs may demur, since a few female figures there are often presented as Mary. But these are challenging to date with certainty, and many scholars argue that the proposed examples have insufficiently specific iconographic signifiers.

Identifying the oldest image of Mary isn’t an end in itself. Reidentifying this woman helps us to ponder anew the distinctive emphases of early Christians in Syria, who in this baptistery celebrated salvation through images of marriage, pregnancy and birth — as much or more than through participation in a ritualized death. This is not to undermine the power of Jesus’ passion and resurrection accounts, but rather to rebalance the perspective of modern Western viewers, looking back after centuries of art focused on the cross. In the extant art from Dura-Europos, we see the hope of new spiritual birth, but the death of Christ is not pictured once. 

Today the paintings from this church are safe. But further opportunities to understand early Syrian Christianity are slipping away, as the archaeological sites of Deir ez-Zor are being systematically plundered under the auspices of the Islamic State. According to satellite images and reports from the ground, the looting pits at Dura-Europos are innumerable. Even while the human tragedy of the refugee crisis justifiably occupies our attention, the destruction of cultural heritage tells a parallel narrative.

Images from this ancient Syrian church are thus much more than museum pieces. They illuminate a people and heritage that need salvation — and not the kind of salvation found in a baptistery.

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Click for info on our March 2016 Year of Mercy Pilgrimage to Rome-Assisi

We have four pilgrimages to Rome this year AND LIZ IS OUR GUIDE FOR ALL OF THEM!

Take a look at this video to see Liz’s amazing knowledge, passion for the Catholic Faith and eloquence. Enjoy this amazing video.

To join our upcoming Year of Mercy Rome-Assisi pilgrimages, visit FootprintsOfGod.com. Our first trip is in March and we have fewer than 10 seats left on the bus!

Also pilgrimages to Rome-Assisi in June, September and part of our Mediterranean cruise in November.

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Atheism Rationally Explained :-)

by Steve Ray on January 12, 2016

ATHEISM: The belief that there was absolutely nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits of random stuff thrown together by chance which then turned into dinosaurs who crawled out of the muck. Makes perfect sense to me.

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Christmas Piano – a Performance by my 12-year old Grandson Josh – Wow!

December 17, 2015

We are not quite sure what to think of this boy. One day at our house he started playing the piano at eight years old. The next thing we know it’s difficult to find a teacher for him because he is so talented. I know it didn’t come from Janet or I, or other ancestors [...]

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Pope Francis’s Encyclical: Updates, Reviews, Critiques

June 23, 2015

A lot is being said about Laudato Si both from supporters and critics — of which I guess I am both. I would fall in the camp of the Acton Institute… Here are eight links worth reading and watching as you digest and work through the new encyclical. 1) Acton Institute critique by my friend [...]

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My Grandson’s Surprising Three Instrument Composition – in one day!

April 21, 2015

My son Jesse wrote this morning about our 12 year old grandson Joshua Thomas Ray. Here is what he said,  “Yesterday I teased Joshua about his compositions only having one instrument in them. Today I came home from work and he asked me to listen to this (video below) also linking his sheet music. It [...]

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My Grandson Josh’s (12 years old) Latest Piano Composition – finished between lunch and dinner :-o

March 27, 2015

He has a gift and it must be from God because it didn’t come from us :-)

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For those following the Geocentrism Debate – I especially enjoyed the one on Pitfalls of Over-literal Interpretation

February 28, 2015

From my friend David Palm who runs the website www.GeocentrismDebunked.com. It almost seems crazy to post blogs debating whether the sun rotates around the earth, or that the earth is the center of the universe with everything revolving around IT. But there are actually people out there with aluminum foil caps with antennas :-)  who [...]

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Geocentrism Debunked Again and Again and their Movie Bombs (more on that soon)

November 14, 2014

DAVE PALM WRITES: The really exciting thing about this latest update of Geocentrism Debunked (www.geocentrismdebunked.org) is that I didn’t write any of the new material myself.  Others are seeing the problems with the geocentric enterprise and weighing in.  Over four years ago physicist Dr. Tom Bridgman issued the “Lagrange point challenge” in response to geocentrist [...]

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“The Principle”: Bob Sungenis’ Poor Attempt to Prove Geocentrism

November 12, 2014

UPDATE Jimmy’s Critique of CONTENT of the Principle movie http://jimmyakin.com/2014/11/whats-wrong-with-the-principle.html The Principle: A Movie Review by Jimmy Akin Recently the Register asked me to reviewThe Principle—a documentary that promotes geocentrism, or the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe. This film is much smaller than most of those the Register reviews. Indeed, [...]

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Update on Geocentrism Debunked

October 21, 2014

For those following the debate about whether the earth actually is the center of the universe with everything spinning around the earth, check out this latest update posted by my friend Dave Palm. You can read the whole thing here http://www.geocentrismdebunked.org/the-cmb-and-geocentrism/  Here are the introductory paragraphs: The New Geocentrists have been claiming for some time that [...]

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“My First Confession”: Hilarious! Irish Storytelling at its Best!

October 5, 2014

Not only Irish storytelling at its best, but also Batt Burns at his best. After dinner tonight we all went up to a private room and Pat Burns entertained us for an hour. He had us with tears in her eyes both from laughter and from sadness which is what a good storyteller can do. [...]

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Prepare for the Fringe Geocentric People: Catholics Claiming the Earth is the Motionless Center of the Universe

July 18, 2014

UPDATE 7/20/14, 9:15 PM Eastern: There must be a network of Geocentrists who quickly call each other to defend their position. As soon as I posted this blog about the geocentric system I got a bunch of comments within that matter of a few hours which demonstrated to me that someone sent out the message [...]

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Some Catholics Live in Nutsville; Does the Sun Really Revolve Around the Earth?

December 16, 2013

They wake up every morning and think the sun revolves around the earth. They live in a different universe than the rest of us. They want you to join their new alternate reality. These folks are marginalized and relatively unknown – and for good reason. They live in Nutsville, a cult that dwells on the [...]

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Google and the Vatican Work Together so you can Tour the Catacombs in Rome

November 27, 2013

Early Christian burial sites are now easier to see, both in person and via the Internet, thanks to 21st-century technology and collaboration between Google and the Vatican. “This is perhaps the sign of the joining of two extremes, remote antiquity and modernity,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi at a news conference Tuesday at the Catacombs of [...]

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What Kind of Music Did Abraham Listen To?

May 30, 2013

Our next DVD in the Footprints of God series will be entitled “Abraham, Father of Faith & Works.” We will begin filming in Iraq — in Ur of Chaldees — which is the home of Abraham, just south of Baghdad (Gen 11:28-31). Thanks to the Biblical Archaeology Society to which I subscribe, we can now listen to music [...]

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